According to the "Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge", animals are divided into:
- those that belong to the Emperor,
- embalmed ones,
- those that are trained,
- suckling pigs,
- fabulous ones,
- stray dogs,
- those that are included in this classification,
- those that tremble as if they were mad,
- innumerable ones,
- those drawn with a very fine camel brush,
- those that have just broken a flower vase,
- those that resemble flies from a distance.
(from Borges' "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins")
"I am no more lonely than a single mullein or dandelion in a pasture, or a bean leaf, or sorrel, or a horse-fly, or a humble-bee. I am no more lonely than the Mill Brook, or a weathercock, or the north star, or the south wind, or an April shower, or a January thaw, or the first spider in a new house."
(from Thoreau's Walden)
I love lists
. Not in the self-actualized, lists-conquer-disorganization sort of way... just a love for the intricacies and complexities of, in fiction and elsewhere, a beautifully shaped list. The list is like a poem
in that every word counts; only, in a list the form is entirely minimal. It's like math too: a series of discrete points one after the other, forming a line that can extend into infinity but is always only visible, on the page, as a finite set.
Maybe the reason I like lists
is that their meaning is almost entirely shaped, not by their elements alone, but by the relationships between them. Meaning in lists is like the harmonics formed when ripples meet--pebbles flipped into deep water: "earth
, the universe
, this flower pot
". Each term pushes and pulls meaning from the terms around it and from the list as a whole. Every term affects the other; a list is both its parts and its sum
themselves are like that. Maybe words are just these tiny little one-element lists: forever humming with the potential of splitting, of multiplying, of bursting free like seedpods into millions of children. Purple
becomes "mauve, violet, burgundy with navy". Far
becomes "far, shockingly far, so not close it’s beyond our ken."
reaction to the list of animals was that it "shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought" ("The Order of Things"). Foucault came across the list in Borges
, who in turn claimed it was quoted from a "certain Chinese encyclopaedia," which may or may not exist. The context and meaning of a list can change too, and add to the harmony.
Take the above list from Walden
. It’s beautiful. The words link and fall like silver chains toward their meaning. The drawn-out, headlong tumble of discovering this in the middle of simple prose is breathtaking. And that last line: "the first spider in a new house"... suddenly everything before it is seen as if for the first time
. "The first spider in a new house," and suddenly a simple, unimportant list
, a list of everyday and mundane associations, turns and takes a leap into the poetic.